TUCSON, Ariz. — Eric Firestone was haunted by Tucson's boneyard, the place where old government planes went to die.
The gallery owner, who splits his time between here and East Hampton, N.Y., just knew that the heaps of scrap metal — wings, nose cones, cockpits and even entire planes that had been gutted — could serve as canvases.
"I've never been so sure of an idea or a project before," Firestone said as he recently strolled through the far end of the Tucson Pima Air & Space Museum field where the works of art he so passionately launched are on display.
"The Boneyard Project: Return Trip," which will run through May, is a massive exhibit with an international roster of artists.
Firestone worked with Brooklyn-based curator and art critic Carlo McCormick, who pulled on his deep knowledge of and relationships with some of the world's biggest names in contemporary art.
The result is a wild, eclectic art exhibit involving 30 artists who made canvases of five former military planes, about 35 nose cones, a wing, a cockpit and a bomb — the latter painted by Tucson's Daniel Martin Diaz.
"I think everyone will have a reaction to it. I don't care if they hate it — I want them to have an opinion of it," Firestone said.
Firestone opened a smaller version of the show, "Nose Job," at his East Hampton gallery last summer.
Involving more than two dozen artists, the exhibit expanded on the nose cone art that has its roots in pre-World War II fighter planes - an art form most artists know, according to McCormick.
Its success only served to whet Firestone's appetite: He wanted more, he wanted bigger, and he wanted to bring it all to the expansive Sonoran Desert.
The Tucson exhibit opened Jan. 28 with music, dancing and some of the artists in attendance. It drew more than 1,400 people — one of the biggest events the museum has had, said Scott Marchand, Pima Air & Space's director of collections.
Displayed in the first hanger visitors come to are the nose cones from the New York exhibit, and about a dozen more. There are nose cones with glitter, lipstick kisses, exploding flowers at the tip, fluttering butterflies and space aliens.
Jameson Ellis, best known for his landscape abstracts, pulled on memories of his father's career as a U.S. Army weapons designer for his piece, "Stolen Hearts," which he painted a deep, shiny red and then shot up with a gun he made himself.
Shepard Fairey, whose portrait of Barack Obama became the face of the president's 2008 campaign, turned his nose cone into a megaphone with a handle that looks much like the butt of a rifle. He calls it "Obey."
Pop artist Ron English's work of a sultry cow standing provocatively on her hind legs, with full udders for breasts, is displayed behind a curtain.
There is one cluster bomb. Diaz — the only Tucson artist represented — was asked to do a nose cone. But when he went to take a look at them, he immediately eyed the Vietnam-era bomb.
"I found it a lot more interesting," says Diaz, who packed the mammoth piece into his car and took it home, getting more than a few stares along the way.
He thought about its graceful yet terrifying shape for a few weeks.
"I wanted to paint something really beautiful," he says. "Then I didn't know if I should go that route because I didn't want to glorify it."
What he did was stay in his style — one that echoes, among others, Spanish Colonial and surrealistic art.
His bomb contains Diaz's intricate designs of skulls, a biblical quote in calligraphy, crosses and boltlike lines that convey a terrific sense of energy. It references good and evil, and carries a sense of doom along with a sense of hope.
It's almost sensory overload — such unusual canvases and so much to see on each. The show demands a couple of visits.
Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com